Josephine Decker’s 2017 film Madeline’s Madeline was fairly electrifying. Armed with a powerhouse performance from Helena Howard, the film resonates with such a unique energy that it is hard to shake. Decker’s latest, an adaptation of a novel about horror author Shirley Jackson, is more subdued in comparison to Madeline’s Madeline. But its energy is similarly unshakeable.
Shirley is initially framed as a biopic, if not a somewhat offbeat one. We enter into the life of Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her professor husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), through a young couple (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman). Fred (Lerman) has traveled to Vermont with his new wife Rose (Young) to work under Stanley. Shirley is first framed from afar, in the midst of a party, through these young eyes. Seemingly, Fred and Rose will be the audience surrogates in a biopic about the pains of the authorial process within isolation.
While the film is in some ways about this injury of isolation, Shirley is not a biopic. It is a fictionalization for the sake of first channeling Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, then undercutting that, as well, in favor of something all its own. In this sense, the Albee connection is key, yet limiting. As the film progresses, we see the various relationships within this rectangle of characters bloom in wildly different ways and at different paces. Stanley’s abusive handling of Shirley’s talents ultimately fuels her fear of the outside, forcing her further into an isolated state. Fred, hungry for upward mobility within academia, latches onto Stanley as a parasite, yearning for his attention and for an affirmation of his abilities as a teacher. Then there is Rose’s curiosity toward Shirley, which will go on to germinate into a relationship that becomes the central focus of the film.
Aspects of these four characters can be mapped onto Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, at least as far as flaunted academia and abrasive interpersonal tensions are concerned. But these initially similar characters morph into something new, and it is a compelling development. Adding to that the performances—particularly those of Young and Stuhlbarg—and you have the table settings for a slow-boiling psychological drama.
Moss, too, is quite effective at this film’s center, but it is getting increasingly difficult to separate her performances as she continues to play similarly emotionally distressed heroines. Does Shirley allow Moss to breathe full life into a rich, multi-dimensional character, as she does in Her Smell? Not quite. But does it give her more of a ceiling to perform compared to The Invisible Man? Certainly.
Decker makes this fictionalized story of Shirley Jackson a mood piece. She films the interiors of the author’s home as slightly off, as if this were the setting of a horror film and not a character drama. The camera lingers in handheld; light entering the windows are hazy and, sometimes, slightly over-exposed. The score, as well as sources of ambient noise within scenes, mimics this unease. The score, from Tamar-kali, is delicate but effective.
Shirley is a fascinating character study. The emotions it deals in are intense and fraught, and the atmosphere created by Decker’s formalism puts these emotions in a disquieting light. While Shirley may not reach the highs that Madeline’s Madeline does, it is nevertheless a sign of Decker’s adeptness as a director.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)